Place: Singapore

In Conversation: Clarissa Goenawan (Ubud Writers and Readers Festival Feature)

Meet Clarissa Goenawan in person at UWRF! Asymptote readers enjoy 20% off on a 4-day pass, just enter 'MPAS' at the online checkout.

Continuing our collaboration with the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, Asymptote is pleased to present this interview with Bath-Novel-Award-winning writer Clarissa Goenawan. Her novel, Rainbirds, released earlier this year with Soho Press, has garnered much praise from readers and critics alike. It has already been translated into several languages, including Indonesian, French, and Hebrew. Set in Akakawa, a fictional town near Tokyo, Rainbirds follows Ren Ishida as he retraces the life of his recently deceased sister. Navigating between sudden drizzles, cram school, and a strange arrangement between his late sister and a local politician, he attempts to make sense of her life and death.

Asymptote‘s Editor-at-Large for Indonesia, Norman Erikson Pasaribu, had the opportunity to converse with Clarissa Goenawan before her appearance at this year’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. In the following interview, we discuss how Clarissa has moved between languages and places, her Indonesian-Singaporean background, and her choice to set the novel in Japan.

Norman Erikson Pasaribu (NEP): Rainbirds is about the relationship of two Japanese siblings and how one discovers the other post-mortem. What inspired you to write about it?

Clarissa Goenawan (CG): The idea for Rainbirds started from a simple thought: “What if someone I cared about unexpectedly passed away, and I realized too late I never got to know them well?” The question left a deep impression, and I knew I had to tell this story.

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Winter 2017: Intimate Strangers

Who better to bare our intimate, struggling self with than several thousand of our closest friends?

January 2017: I have turned 40. Though I no longer remember when exactly I set down the rule for team members to refrain from sending me email over weekends, it is likely the embargo originated from this time. Entering a new decade is an occasion to take stock, to insist on a proper work-life balance. But 40 has always felt like an especially significant milestone, possibly because, as a teenager, I’d read an essay in which the narrator wonders obsessively if he’d land on the “right side of forty,” the obsession guiding his every life decision. Then his fortieth birthday comes, and with it the realization, like thunder, that he has lived life wrong. I’ve not lived life wrong, but I have certainly lived against the grain. Around this time I notice, for example, that I am spacing out more and more in gatherings with former classmates when talk turns to acquiring a second property. I stumble upon David Williams’s devastating essay in World Literature Today and can’t tear my eyes away from the line: “I couldn’t see it at the time, and I certainly refused to acknowledge it, but when my parents’ overeducated, thirty-something child chooses to sell his labor well below a living wage, they can be forgiven for thinking that their blue-eyed son is engaged in a sophisticated form of self-sabotage.”  Perhaps, this is why our sixth anniversary issue comes with what Australia editor-at-large Tiffany Tsao calls below a “frankly [desperate]” editor’s note; still, as she says, “who better to bare our intimate, struggling self with than several thousand of our closest friends?”

. . . you have spent vast amounts of your life as someone else . . . This phrase hails from Amanda DeMarco’s brilliant rumination on life as a translator, Foreign to Oneself. Published in our Winter 2017 issue, the essay is composed entirely of excerpts from other texts (this particular quote is taken from Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby). As I reread these words while writing this essay, my vision began to get a little blurry. I’m being maudlin, I know. But where else is one entitled to get weepy if not in a retrospective that invites writers to indulge in nostalgia? And the truth of this observation about being a translator sang out all the more because this was also the issue in which my translations of Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s poetry made their debut.

At that point, I was Asymptote’s Indonesia Editor-at-Large (my country of focus is now Australia, where I reside), and a few months earlier, I’d come across some of Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s poetry. Having heard that he’d recently won the Jakarta Arts Council Poetry Manuscript Competition, I reached out to him via Twitter to ask if I could work with him to translate his poems for our poetry editor’s consideration. This issue marked the start of an ongoing and very fruitful translator-writer partnership with Norman, who later came on staff and is our current Indonesia Editor-at-Large. English-language versions of Norman’s other poems were subsequently published in various magazines, and awarded both a prize and a grant from English PEN. The collection from which these poems are excerpted will be published by Tilted Axis Press in March 2019. If it weren’t for Asymptote, I’m not sure if Norman and I would have ever started working together. READ MORE…

Spring 2013: A Singular Experience

I have written for The Atlantic and Foreign Affairs, interacted with magazines large and small—but my experience with Asymptote remains singular.

To sift through the 1,709 threads generated around our first-ever Indiegogo campaign (held from 16 January 2013 to 30 April 2013) is to relive stomach-churning dread. Money is a garish topic—no one likes to ask for it. Although the team is by now 25-strong, only five or six go out on a limb (for which I’m already extremely grateful). As of 24 April 2013, we find ourselves hovering around 7.5% of our goal (i.e., $1,500)—just enough, then, to cover the cost of the animation I commissioned for the fundraiser (since, ever the introvert, I have declined to appear in a video). Someone leaves a discouraging comment on social media: “Asymptote? More like Asym-nope.” But, suddenly, momentum picks up. With 5 days left, we go from $1,500 to $3,000, then from $3,000 to $6,000; and then, thanks to a single donation of $5,000 from a friend, we achieve the thrilling feat of doubling our monies for the third day in a row. All at once, hitting our goal is looking possible. From our various stations around the globe, we liveblog the last 48 hours, and finally bring it home at $20,184. (This money represents extra lives to stay in the game: Overnight, our bank account jumps from two figures to five.) Back for a visit in Singapore, I meet with a local literary editor I reached out to in the final hours of the campaign. In a cafe, he takes out his check book and writes the number $101, declaring the number meaningful: It is the one and only time he will ever donate to Asymptote. I want to give back the check, but instead I cash it, considering it reparation of sorts: I am a nine-time unpaid contributor to his journal, which, unlike Asymptote, does promote Singaporean writing and is therefore eligible to receive money from Singapore’s National Arts Council to pay its contributors; it doesn’t simply becauseand I know because he told mehe doesn’t want the hassle of administering funds. Here to introduce the Spring 2013 issue is contributor Will McGrath.

To the funding body*:

I am delighted to write in support of Asymptote, which published my essay “Good & Bad Joala” in April 2013. It was a piece of personal significance about the southern African kingdom of Lesotho, and also my first publication. Since 2013, I have published frequently, written for The Atlantic and Foreign Affairs, won the Felice Buckvar Prize for Nonfiction, and interacted with magazines large and small—but my experience with Asymptote remains singular.

When Asymptote selected my essay, I didn’t understand how uncommon the journal was, how rare their personal investment in each piece. They commissioned stunning visuals to accompany my work and sought out an internationally lauded translator to bring my essay into Chinese, mediating between us and consulting me on the granular detail of translation. After publication, they nominated my essay for a Pushcart Prize and then a Best of the Net Prize. Later still, when I published in other journals, Asymptote continued to support and celebrate my work, striving to foster a global network of writers and readers. All of this attention and effort they lavished on an uncredentialled writer pulled from the slush pile. READ MORE…

Fall 2011: The Pleasure of Literary Engagement

Featuring Lydia Davis’ first translation from the Dutch, an excerpt from Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and Dubravka Ugrešić on Croatian novelists

Miraculously, word spreads. Asymptote is selected as The Center for Fiction’s international journal of the month for September 2011. Publishers Weekly features us in a writeup. We are a Paris Review staff pick: apparently, poetry editor Robyn Creswell has been “poking around in Asymptote” and has especially enjoyed the (very) short story by Robert Walser, translated by Susan Bernofsky, Adonis’s “Ambiguity,” translated by Elliott Colla, and an essay about riddles by the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky, translated by Shushan Avagyan(!)” Literary heavyweights Jane Hirshfield and John Kinsella, whom I don’t know personally, write to offer blurbs in support. I discover that Parul Sehgal, an award-winning literary critic I admire, has a Singaporean connection. Had she been based in Singapore, would her talent in literary criticism have been recognized? Would it even have flourished in the first place? This inspires me to move to Taiwan for the lower cost of living. Here to introduce the first issue that I edited out of Taipei (and that also features my translations of Jing Xianghai and Belinda Chang) is contributing editor Sim Yee Chiang. 

As I re-read the interview I conducted with Motoyuki Shibata for the Fall 2011 issue of Asymptote, I am catapulted at once to the terror of that late summer afternoon at the University of Tokyo. Why on earth had I insisted that we speak in Japanese? I was armed with notes, even a few jaunty segues, but I knew my adopted tongue could abandon me at any moment, just as it had abandoned me six months before at a disastrous interview for prospective Ph.D. students.

What prevented disaster that day was hearing Professor Shibata talk about the “pleasure” of literary engagement and translation. Translators tend to fall prey to all kinds of pesky anxieties: of influence, of equivalence, of legitimacy etc. Even now, years after that conversation, I still find the principles of pleasure and humour not only useful defences against said anxieties, but also indispensable qualities of a successful translation. READ MORE…

Summer 2011: Our First Great Issue

Asymptote issues offer much serendipity and often puzzling amounts of connections, and the Summer 2011 one is no exception.

The Summer 2011 issue is, to my mind anyway, Asymptote’s first great issue—not least because of the sheer embarrassment of riches showcased therein. (To this day, I still regret not being able to find a spot in our list of featured names on the cover for: AdonisPéter EsterházyBrother Anthony of TaizéSagawa ChikaHai-Dang PhanAraya RasdjarmrearnsookAzra Raza & Sara Suleri GoodyearJonas Hassen Khemiri, and, last but certainly not least, Tomaž Šalamun, who enclosed English translations of his poetry in a letter sent to my Singaporean address. A savvier editor would probably have chosen to promote local opposition politician and household name Chen Show Mao; indeed, after he shared it on his Facebook page, my exclusive interview with Chen drew thousands of hits from Singaporean readers, causing an unprecedented spike in traffic.) No, it was our first great issue because despite the adverse conditions under which it was produced—a key editor dropped out, taking Asymptote funds along with him; our guest artist resigned three weeks before the issue launch—we still delivered on time, working into the wee hours of the morning. On a lighter note: Sven Birkerts, whose essay on Roberto Bolaño I solicited, once handed me a crisp five-dollar bill after betting in class that no one would be able to identify an unattributed passage from Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Who says you can’t make money from world literature? Here to introduce this issue (and the Hungarian Fiction Feature that I edited in honor of my Hungarian friend Nora, whose wedding I couldn’t attend because of the journal) is Diána Vonnák, editor-at-large for Hungary since October 2017.

I started writing about Hungarian literature in translation in 2012, right after I moved away from Budapest. In a way, this was a coping mechanism, a strategy to handle the sudden absence of both shared references and the immediacy of lived language. It was a half-serious attempt  to not only recreate the context I had been immersed in back home but also weave it into the much larger and more diverse literary world I encountered in a UK university full of students from overseas.

These new encounters fascinated me, and I found myself immersed in world literature more than ever before. But I realized that if I wanted to write about it, I needed to explore Hungarian literature in English translation and the platforms where it could be found. This journey soon led me to what was then a rather young journal: Asymptote. In 2013, I stumbled upon the journal’s third issue, from July 2011, and was astonished to find the special feature on Hungarian fiction. Yet as I read through the rest of the issue I was mesmerised by the many hidden links between the other pieces, particularly the subtle hints to Odysseus and his many literary heirs as well as modernism in its divergent traditions. If there had been a Greek god overseeing the birth of this issue, it would have certainly been Hermes. READ MORE…

Of Conscience and Blood: Independence Days in Southeast Asia

"I ask those who think about society, who love life...to become a bit more zealous"

This August and September, we celebrate the independence days of several countries in Southeast Asia, including Singapore (9 August), Indonesia (17 August) and Vietnam (2 September). In today’s blog post, Asymptote travels to Southeast Asia to reflect on writing from the past. Having gained independence from Great Britain, Holland and France, the literatures of these countries often address complex post-colonial histories and the multilingual environs of post-independence life. We asked Asymptote Editors-At-Large Theo, Norman, and Khai, to tell us more about a local writer worth knowing more about, in celebration of national freedom and identity.

Few remember the scene, but for two weeks in November 1960, passers-by on Singapore’s busy Stamford Road stopped to cheer on forty librarians as they formed a human chain to transfer 150,000 books – then the entire national collection – from the dusty shelves of the old colonial museum to a new, purpose-built National Library. Singapore had just achieved self-government, and amid rapid political change, the city was in the mood for new beginnings. Behind this audacious plan was Hedwig Anuar: writer, activist, war survivor, and the first Singaporean Director of the National Library.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week's literary news roundup brings us to Iran and Singapore.

As summer draws to a close and many of us think about quickly approaching semesters, we bring you another round of updates from around the world. Poupeh Missaghi reports from Iran, looking at how sanctions imposed on Iran have affected the publishing industry, and paying homage to a much-loved bookseller in Tehran. Bringing us the latest from Singapore, Theophilus Kwek discusses the recently announced Singapore Literature Prize as well as recent poetry publications. Happy traveling-via-laptop!

Poupeh Missaghi, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Iran:

The recent U.S. breach of the Iran nuclear deal and its new round of sanctions imposed on the country have not spared the Iranian publishing industry and its print media. Rising economic instability and a sudden drop in the value of the Iranian currency, along with other issues such as hoarding of paper supplies have led to many problems in the industry. The Iranian Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Abbas Salehi, recently spoke about the matter and the attempts to stabilize the price of paper. Head of the Iranian paper syndicate, Abolfazl Roghani Golpaygani, also recently discussed a 100% increase in the price of paper in the past year which has caused newspapers and thus journalists concerns about the future of the trade. Consequently, the Iranian Ministry of Industry, Mines, and Trade just agreed with the urgent import of several tons of paper under special tariffs, but it is uncertain that this will provide a long-term solution for the problems of the industry.

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What’s New with the Crew? A Monthly Update

The Asymptote staff have been keeping busy!

Fresh from working on the fabulous Summer 2018 issue of Asymptote, our team members have been busy with their own creative endeavors. Read on to find out what we have been writing, doing, and learning!

Contributing Editor Aamer Hussein recently judged the McKitterick Prize. The prize, which honors the first novel by a writer over the age of forty, went to Nigerian writer Anietie Isong for his debut novel, Radio Sunrise.

Communications Manager Alexander Dickow has had quite a summer: other than publishing poetry in Place de La Sorbonne, he also recently wrote for Paragraph and Plume (which also ran his translations of Max Jacob’s poetry). His work also appeared in La Revue des Sciences Humaines, Littérature, and larevue*.

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What’s New with the Crew? A Monthly Update

Check out the latest exploits of our stellar international team!

In the midst of sunny summertime beach reading in the north and cozy fireside reading in the south, intense world cup viewing, and political activism, the Asymptote team has been as creative as always! Below are some recent updates from the crew as well as exciting information for all you emerging translators!

Criticism Editor Ellen Jones contributed an article on Junot Díaz to Hispanic Research Journal. Her translation of Juan Pablo Roncone’s short story “Children” was published in the Bogotá39 anthology (Oneworld, June 2018). She also participated in a translation slam with Rosalind Harvey at Oxford Translation Day, where the two of them discussed their different versions of Chilean writer Nicanor Parra’s poem “Manchas en la pared.”

Blog Editor Sarah Booker contributed a translation of Cristina Rivera Garza’s “Simple Pleasure. Pure Pleasure” to The Paris Review.

Australia Editor-at-Large Tiffany Tsao’s new novel Under Your Wings was published on July 2 by Viking Australia, and has been reviewed at Readings.

Singapore Editor-at-Large Theophilus Kwek presented his paper “(Trans)National Service: Conscripting Second-Generation Migrants in Neoliberal Singapore” at the biennial conference of the Asian Studies Association of Australia. In addition, his undergraduate dissertation discussing race in Singapore’s history textbooks will become a chapter in the forthcoming book Southeast Asian Education in Modern History (ed. Pia Maria Jolliffe, Thomas Richard Bruce) from Routledge.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Our weekly roundup of literary news brings us to Romania, Mexico, and Singapore.

We are in the thick of the World Cup, but that does not mean that everything else stops! We are back with the latest literary updates from around the world. MARGENTO reports from Bookfest Bucharest on the latest of Romanian publishing and Romanian-US connections that emerged during the festival. Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn discuss the latest publications from the Yucatan Peninsula, focusing on indigenous writers. Finally, Theophilus Kwek tells us about recent news in the Singaporean literary world. Happy reading!

MARGENTO, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Romania: 

Bookfest Bucharest is one of the largest international book festivals in Europe, growing larger and larger by the year. This year it featured over 150 publishers. Although expanding, the festival seemed less loud this time for a quite mundane reason: the organizers placed the beer patios further away from the pavilions than they did in the past. The atmospherics and the events felt really animated, though, and sometimes even intense. The guest of honor was the United States, with a centrally placed and welcoming space hosting four to six events every day. One of the most popular panels was chaired by the ambassador himself—HE Hans Klemm—on the life and work of Romanian-born American critic and fiction writer Matei Călinescu (and the dedicated Humanitas series).

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What’s New with the Crew? A Monthly Update

Touch base with our industrious team's literary achievements as we approach the halfway mark of 2018!

We have such an amazing group of creative people over here at Asymptote. Check out some of our recent news and stay tuned for more of the international literature you love!

Poetry Editor Aditi Machado’s book of poetry, Some Beheadings, has been awarded The Believer Poetry Award.

Communications Manager Alexander Dickow has published an article in French on the creative imagination in Apollinaire’s Méditations esthétiques in Littérature’s 190th edition.

Editor-at-Large for Romania & Moldova Chris Tanasescu aka MARGENTO delivered a computational poetry paper at a major Artificial Intelligence conference, presented a Digital Humanities paper at Congress2018, and has flown to Europe to launch a computationally assembled poetry anthology.

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Notes From A Camp: A Window into the Lives of Singapore’s “Boat People”

Our collective choices—however inconvenient at the time, or insignificant they may seem later—can mean the world to others in real, lasting terms.

It was during the summer of 2015, as I was doing research at the National Library in Singapore, that a small sheaf of papers fell—quite literally—into my lap. Covered in dense 1970s newsprint, I was about to place it back on the shelf when some handwritten Vietnamese at the top of a page caught my eye.

Trại tỵ nạn Hawkins: kiểu mẫu của sự hòa hợp, it read, accompanied by a translation: “The Hawkins Road Refugee Camp: A model of harmony.” I was intrigued. I had heard, of course, that “boat people” had arrived in Singapore after Vietnam’s reunification and subsequent invasion of Cambodia. I had heard, too, that most were turned away by the Singapore Navy after being provided with fuel and water, in a controversial exercise that came to be known as Operation Thunderstorm.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Our weekly roundup of literary news brings us to the Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tunisia.

It is literary prize season and recent news that the Nobel Prize for Literature will not be awarded this year along with growing excitement for forthcoming award announcements have kept the literary community on our toes! This week we bring you the latest news from the Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tunisia. Enjoy!

Julia Sherwood, Editor-at-large, reporting from the Czech Republic:

April 4 saw the announcement of the winners of the most celebrated Czech literary prize, the Magnesia Litera. For the first time in four years the title “book of the year” went not to a work of fiction but to an analysis of contemporary Czech politics against the backdrop of recent history, Opuštěná společnost (The Abandoned Society) by journalist Erik Tabery. The fiction prize was awarded to Jaroslav Pánek for his novel Láska v době globálních klimatických změn (Love in the Time of Global Climate Change), the story of a scientist  forced to confront his own prejudices while attending a conference in Bangalore.

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What’s New with the Crew? A Monthly Update

What is our literary powerhouse of a crew up to this May? Read on to find out!

We have such an amazing group of creative people over here at Asymptote. Check out some of our recent news and stay tuned for more of the international literature you love!

Poetry Editor Aditi Machado‘s poem “Epistle” appeared in Boston Review, and another poem of hers, “Archaic”, was reprinted by the Poetry Society of America.

From May 1 – 5, Romania and Moldova Editor-at-Large Chris Tanasescu aka MARGENTO organized DHSITE, a bilingual event introducing new computing technologies and their uses in education and research, at the University of Ottawa. Later this month, he will present a paper at the Kanada Koncrete poetry conference in the same school.

Both Assistant Editor Lizzie Buehler and Blog Editor David Smith have accepted offers to attend the University of Iowa’s Literary Translation MFA this coming fall. David also wrote a review of an early Jon Fosse novel, Boathouse, for Reading in Translation.

Indonesia Editor-at-Large Norman Erikson Pasaribu spoke with Indonesian writer Eka Kurniawan about his conception of horror, the diversity of Indonesian literature, and the rebirth of the New Order in Mekong Review.

Assistant Managing Editor Sam Carter published an essay at Music & Literature on Jorge Barón Biza’s The Desert and Its Seed.

Blog Editor Sarah Booker‘s translation of Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest (Feminist Press and And Other Stories) was included on the long list for the Best Translated Book Award.

Singapore Editor-at-Large Theophilus Kwek contributed work to Carcanet Press’s latest New Poetries anthology. He also published a piece in The Straits Times comparing citizenship opportunities in the UK (where he was able to vote in the European Union referendum as a Commonwealth citizen) and Singapore.

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